A year ago, educators, students, and parents were flying by the seat of their pants, scrambling to secure tools for remote learning and navigate the particulars of teleconferencing software such as Zoom and edtech software like Canvas. If the household’s Internet bandwidth weren’t strained, a family’s mental bandwidth certainly was. 

For better or for worse, families across the country have settled into the groove of virtual learning during the time of COVID. Students have learned what remote learning styles work for them. Parents have learned about what learning styles might not work for their children. Teachers have uncovered new ways to make learning happen outside of the classroom. And from all of this, the edtech industry has gleaned years’ worth of industry intelligence and market research from a matter of months. 

We spoke with parents, teachers, and edtech professionals to get a snapshot of what a year of virtual learning has taught the education world, and what key lessons we can take away for future learning. Whether instruction is in person, online, or some combination thereof, the pandemic has laid bare information and feedback about the efficacy of new ways of learning. 

Surprisingly, we discovered some overarching themes shared across the learning community: First off, it might not matter what technology we use, as long as we’re able to get a break from it. Also, applying common business strategies like goal-setting and calendared items can work just as well for remote learners. Read on below to learn more about what 2020 has taught us about distance learning. 

  1. Children have been empowered with a greater sense of agency about learning and goal-setting.

Students Keep Up With Classes Best When They Calendar Activities

“More than the tools, it is really executive functioning — or the ability of students to organize their work, tasks, and assignments — that is most useful for them in these times,” says Allen Koh, CEO of Cardinal Education, a Bay Area-based educational consulting firm. “Because classes are sometimes asynchronous, it is easy to fall into the trap of procrastinating.  Calendaring of activities is most helpful to keep students on track.”

Worksheets, Goal-Setting Help Students Track Progress

“We’ve been using worksheets that help a student set a goal, identify an adult who they can ask for help, track progress, and plan something to look forward to when they reach their goal,” says Caitlyn Malik, operations and engagement manager at The Shadow Project, a Portland, Ore.–based nonprofit that partners with special education teachers to offer specialized programs that support students who learn differently. “We also created a worksheet that helps facilitate a ‘goal check-in’ between parent / ‘co-teacher’ and child, fostering positive connection and a supportive relationship during a challenging time.”

  1. Technology is a Double-Edged Sword for Kids with Learning Challenges (Overheard: Giving kids an iPad for school is like holding an AA meeting in a bar)

Goal-Setting is Critically Important for ADHD Distance-Learners

“The remote learning environment is often inaccessible for kids with dyslexia and other learning disabilities, kids with ADHD struggle with virtual distractions and lack of tools/strategies to find calm and focus, and neurodiverse kids have had a difficult time with this huge shift in their familiar routines. The K–8 special education teachers who use our classroom-based programs needed support motivating and effectively engaging students to learn virtually. Our nonprofit provided a motivational system that teachers used to recognize and reward students for making progress on their learning goals and participating in virtual learning activities,” Mailk continues. “Teachers reported their students showed up and participated more often in virtual classes, were comforted by the familiarity of a program they used during in-person school, and stayed resilient in their mental health throughout the pandemic. Some teachers told us this goal-setting system was the only one that worked to reach disengaged students.”

Remote Learning Might Be a Perfect Storm for an Uptick in ADHD Diagnoses 

“For my older two boys, they both had school ended abruptly last March and didn’t go back to in-person learning until this past January. We took the virus very seriously in our home, and despite the schools opening in August, we decided to do distance learning. It was so difficult. Both boys are in the gifted program but have behavioral issues that make it harder. My oldest is on the autism spectrum and the second son has ADHD. Both suffered a lot of mental anguish over being separated from their friends,” says Emily Cherkin, a Seattle-area parent, a former educator, and The Screentime Consultant, an internationally recognized consultant who has worked with families and schools to teach an approach that is intentional about technology.  

“As someone who has worked (and continues to work) with students with ADHD diagnoses, I think [the recent uptick in ADHD diagnoses] is a very interesting increase. I also know that signs of excessive screen use mimic many of the symptoms of ADHD. And that kids with ADHD are more prone to addictive behaviors. I think this year of remote learning has been a perfect storm for some children, especially those with executive functioning challenges. One colleague of mine says that “giving kids an iPad for school is like holding an AA meeting in a bar.”

  1. Students Need Screen-Free Breaks to Quiet Their Minds

Weaving in Mindfulness, Meditation, and Outdoor Time Can Foster a Better Learning Experience

When asked how parents can help foster a positive learning environment at home, Deborah Lee, a northern N.J.-based veteran of K–12 education, the founder and CEO of edtech startup Dancing Panda, and parent of two elementary school-age girls, emphasized the need for time away from screens. “Take breaks and outdoor time,” she says. She also points out the helpfulness of her daughters’ mindfulness and meditation practice, both at bedtime and as part of their virtual learning. “I’ve noticed my children doing yoga and meditation more in their PE classes,” she says. 

Remove Distractions; Use Tools to Help Students Better Focus Over Zoom

Jeff B., a tutor for Los Angeles-based tutoring company LA Tutors 123, echoes the need for a quiet place free from distractions. “Too many of my students had distractions present during lessons that I couldn’t see through their webcam until later in the session,” he says. “But if I had a firmer zoom protocol to share with all students that might have helped.” He also notes how noise-cancelling headphones have made a world of difference for his students. 

  1. The value of in-person interaction.

While teachers have done a tremendous job taking advantage of edtech tools, intangible elements get lost when all learning happens behind a screen. “Remote learning was the lifeboat to keep students connected to their teachers and peers. A lifeboat is not intended to be long-term housing,” Cherkin continues. “The interactions in a physical classroom — the whispers, the hesitated raised hands, the confused expressions, the back-and-forth dialogue — none of that is easy to replicate over a Zoom call.” 

Schools Should Foster Social Interactions for Distance Learners

Alice Anderson, founder of pregnancy and parenting blog Mommy to Mom, is a stay-at-home mother of two: a daughter in seventh grade and a first-grader son. While her daughter has appreciated the time away from being physically present at middle school, she feels her son, while doing well academically, has experienced some drawbacks in his social development over the past year. “Things have been harder for him because he hasn’t been able to experience a normal school life the way that my daughter has,” Anderson notes. “He was taken out of kindergarten when the pandemic started and has spent his entire first-grade year learning from home. I wish there was more time for him to interact with his schoolmates during the day. They have snack buddies for 15 minutes where they can chat while they take a break but the rest of the day is all learning. If I could change one thing, I would encourage our school to focus on what our kids are missing out on from a social perspective — especially first graders who are so young.”

Conclusion

All parties involved in the educational process — teachers, parents, developers of digital education tools — have been faced first hand with what’s been laid bare during a year of virtual learning. Whether it’s a teacher’s need to read subtle non-verbal cues from students to get a sense of true comprehension, a student’s need to form bonds with classmates, or for all parties to foster a distraction-free learning environment, the “new normal” of virtual learning has been a lens to put the old normal into perspective. As in-person learning becomes new again, staying on top of assignments and the value of in-person interaction will remain all the more cherished.